After a long day of classes, Macon State College senior Kristina Whitaker does not always have time to prepare a big, healthy meal. For at least two or three nights a week, her go-to food is Ramen noodles.
“As a full-time college student, money and time are major issues that you have to deal with and buying packages of noodles are cheap,” Whitaker said. “They fill you up and are great when you are constantly on the go and have deadlines to meet.”
And she is not alone.
Ramen noodles are often a popular choice for those on a strict budget, and students tend to be among those top consumers who want a cheap meal that can easily be prepared with just one ingredient.
But few people know what happens after consuming this budget-friendly meal… until now.
Stefani Bardin, teacher at Parsons The New School for Design in N.Y. and education director at 3rd Ward in Brooklyn, came up with the idea to “blend an artistic conception grounded in scientific experiment.”
Two trial studies were conducted by Bardin and Dr. Braden Kuo, director of the GI motility laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard University.
Volunteers were given Ramen noodles, Gatorade and gummy bears on June 25 last year. On September 10, they ate homemade noodles and gummy bears and drank hibiscus tea. After consumption of each meal, subjects swallowed a tiny capsule with video recording capabilities to capture the inside of the gastrointestinal tract.
“One of the things I was really interested in was using this technology to do a project around what processed or homemade foods look like going through the body,” Bardin said. “It [Ramen noodles] is a food readily available that would be interesting to look at from the inside of the tract.”
While the preliminary study only tested a few subjects, there were noticeable differences in the breakdown of the homemade noodles versus the processed Ramen noodles.
“The most striking thing during the time intervals of two, four and six hours was the degree of breakdown of Ramen noodles,” Kuo said. “At two and four hours, the particular size of the Ramen noodle was much larger or formed than the homemade Ramen noodle at each of those time points, suggesting Ramen noodles were difficult to break down into extremely infinite particulate matter during the process of digestion.”
A video released on the study at TEDxManhattan’s “Changing the Way We Eat” has since gone viral and prompted discussion among researchers, nutritionists, physicians and Ramen noodle consumers.
“After seeing this video I will definitely change how often I eat Ramen noodles,” Whitaker said. “I will try to eat them once a week or I might just stop eating them all together unless I have no other choice.”
Georgia State University graduate student Brandi Reese said, “The video was really gross, and hopefully, this will prompt the company to consider ways on improving the product.” Reese added, “I have never been much of a Ramen noodle eater. However, after seeing that video, I definitely won’t be eating them anytime soon.”
Whitaker also said after eating noodles she sometimes experiences stomachaches and nausea but associated the complications with “eating the noodles too fast.”
Sheena Quizon Gregg, assistant director of nutrition education and health promotion at The University of Alabama, said, “Processed foods such as Ramen noodles contain significant amounts of sodium, saturated and trans fats, as well as additives that can lead to chronic disease states such as Type II Diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease if consumed in excessive amounts.”
Despite the reaction to the video, Kuo insisted not enough subjects were tested to form conclusive results.
We don’t understand the impact to a degree of digestion, but what we do have is a striking visual image to begin the discussion,” Kuo said. “But I can’t say for certain at this point whether they [Ramen noodles] will have an impact on health or nutrition or absorption.
Bardin echoed Kuo’s statement suggesting it was not about choosing one thing over the over but “looking at things in terms of moderation.”
“This is about taking into consideration what’s in your food, what’s available to you and being able to allow the public to make more informed choices, which is something our current labeling system and our food system doesn’t make readily accessible,” Bardin said.
“Many consumers can add vegetables and lean proteins to the noodles for more balance to the meal,” Gregg said. “Vegetables added to the noodles that are fresh, frozen or canned (low/no sodium) can provide additional vitamin and mineral content to the meal. Lean proteins such as fish or chicken prepared with as little added fat as possible using olive oil in preparation can add nutrient benefit.”
Whitaker said, “I do not try to incorporate healthier ingredients when eating them, but it does seem like a great idea.” She added, “To make them healthier, I could prepare the noodles with vegetables and avoid adding fatty ingredients like butter and salt.”
Kuo and his team are in the process of obtaining funding to test more research subjects to form more definitive results.
Until then, students can continue to eat the noodles, keeping moderation and proportions in mind.
“One important thing is spending a little bit more money on food ends up benefiting you down the road in terms of overall health, not just for yourself but the environment,” Bardin said.
“It is important for consumers to remember, regardless of age, that though we most definitely eat for pleasure and enjoyment, our number one goal when eating is to nourish our bodies, Gregg said. “If we only eat foods that have had the health providing components such as vitamins, minerals and fiber removed, we are doing ourselves an injustice.”
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